A Religious Cult Without Context, for Starters: The Many Annoyances of Ari Aster’s 2019 Film, “Midsommar”

It was during an AMA on Reddit 13 months ago that American writer and director Ari Aster first announced that Midsommar would be the title of his next film and he was hoping to release it on Midsummer’s Day of 2019. He teased at its folk horror genre classification, revealing that Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973)—which, incidentally, happen to be two of my all-time favorite films—served as Midsommar’s two biggest cinematic influences. I was ecstatic upon hearing this news.

Coming hot on the heels of his powerful and bold 2018 debut film, Hereditary (you can read my review of it here), the bar for my expectations was set very, very high. I wanted to love Midsommar—I truly did. Unfortunately, though, in sharp contrast to the undoubtedly flavorful hallucinogenic teas consumed by the characters in the world of Midsommar, the film came across as grossly insipid to me. Far from elevating the folk horror (sub)genre, as one reviewer gushed, Midsommar flattened it, rendered it as non-engaging and as uninspiring as pieces of disassembled IKEA furniture spilled out of their cardboard box.

Worse, I worry about the potential social ramifications of backlash against Pagan communities in the U.S. and in Europe—when we’re not fighting for our rights to (re)claim ancient sacred sites for contemporary religious worship from countries where Abrahamic monotheism strongly imprints the laws of the land (look at the situation in Greece, for example), we’re constantly trying to disprove to our secular and monotheist- majority neighbors that any connotations exist between our autonomous, fragmented communities and established “cults.” The disturbing kinds of cults—Jim Jonesesque, Peoples’ Temple-congregants-offing-themselves-by-the- hundreds-in-remote-Guyana kinds of cults. In that regard, this film doesn’t exactly serve as a brand ambassador for contemporary Western (Neo-)Paganism.

Warning: My review is rife with plot spoilers! 

They’re creepy and they’re kooky: The Swedes of Hälsingland!

As in The Wicker Man, the viewers of Midsommar are introduced to the sinister machinations of a tightly knit Pagan society through the bewildered eyes of an outsider—well, several outsiders in Midsommar’s case. But what “kind” of Paganism are we dealing with here? Rituals of human sacrifice for the assured well-being of the community are enacted in Hälsingland every 90 years…but to appease Who, exactly? It’s never articulated.

At the climax of the original Wicker Man, Lord Summerisle (endearingly played by Christopher Lee) names the Celtic Gods of Sea, Land, and Sky, respectively, unto Whom the single human sacrifice of Sergeant Howie (played by Edward Woodward) is dedicated. We know unequivocally that the inhabitants of Summerisle are practicing some sort of Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism.

But in Midsommar, no Scandinavian Gods are ever named. There are no discernible god-posts, carved into the likenesses of Thor or Odin, that receive ritual libations or other offerings. No one is praising Freyr for the verdant land and its diverse fruits; prayers are curiously absent and remain unspoken, even before the official Midsommar festival kick-off dinner or the more harrowing sacrifices that occur later on.

All we get is a very postmodern pastiche of menacing folk-art murals, a Maypole and its Stravinskyesque Le Sacre du Printemps (Rites of Spring)-inspired dance to death performed by flower-crowned maidens, examples of sympathetic magic (love spells utilizing mincemeat pies laced with pubic hairs and carved wooden fetishes), and, more than anything, various runic alphabets appearing out of any identifiable magico-religious context and messily jumbled together on every conceivable medium possible—embroidered onto the homespun linen clothing and leather shoes, painted in the disquieting murals, engraved in ominous-looking monolith stones, and written in a “scriptural” rune book that serves as the grimoire gestalt for the whole community. We’re talking Elder Futhark, Younger Futhark, Anglo-Saxon Futhorc and, yes, Nazi-identified ultra-esoteric “Uthark” runes from the 1930s all ridiculously mish-mashed together in a runic soup that loses all historical context, all meaning, the closer that you stare at it. (By way of foreshadowing, there’s a scene in the living room of the hapless American character Christian’s apartment that showcases a yellow hardcover book entitled The Uthark Alphabet and the Nazis prominently displayed on the coffee table as he and his fellow anthropology grad school classmates/friends discuss the upcoming trip to Sweden.) The inhabitants of Hälsingland certainly are not modern-day Heathens or adherents of Asatru or what have you; they outwardly appear to be, though. All told, there are repeatedly enforced visual “cues” or blank cyphers of a strangely religiously contextless Swedish Paganism/Polytheism through which The Sinister is constantly being projected. The enforced message that bludgeons your skull with a mallot over and over again is SEMIOTIC PASTICHE OF PAGAN SYMBOLS (THE CODIFIED)+ PEOPLE WHO BELIEVE IN THEM (THE CODIFIERS) = CULT and CULT= BAD!

hammer dude Midsommar

Step aside, Chris Hemsworth: There’s a new sacred hammer-bearer in town!

“We observe the incest taboo…”—NOT!

The anthropology student, Josh (played by William Jackson Harper), is relieved to discover that he and his friend-turned-academic rival, Christian (played by Jack Reynor), have been given the Hårga tribal elders’ permission to interview the inhabitants of Hälsingland about their social structure and communal values, provided that Josh and Christian don’t cite villagers’ actual names nor offer the specific geographic location of where they live in their respective doctoral theses. We see Josh and Christian at work with their notebooks, furiously scribbling responses to their interview questions (e.g., how are social roles established? How do routine tasks necessary for the village’s daily maintenance/functioning get allocated, especially with regards to the children?) posed to various villagers.

Josh, disturbed by the physical isolation of the villagers and the physical similarities among several of them, poses the unpleasant but necessary question of whether inbreeding or incestuous relationships occur in this remote, isolated Swedish valley. (Fun fact: the movie was actually shot on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary.) Josh’s interlocutor flatly denies such accusations, replying, “We observe the incest taboo.” We find out later when beholding the severely physically deformed boy, Ruben (played by Levente Puczkó-Smith), that, to borrow the words of tabloid talk show host Maury Povich, “That was a lie!” Ruben is revealed to be an oracularly gifted product of inbreeding. Yet the viewer cannot help but draw the conclusion from the outset that the entire village is comprised of one large, inbred/incestuously entangled (and consequently, fucked up) literal family. At the first meal the American and British outsiders share with the inhabitants of Hälsingland, the communal outdoor dining tables are artfully arranged to form the Elder Futhark rune of Othala, which signifies family and kin, blood bonds, the ancestral homestead. In other words, these sinister Swedes are the Pagan version of American Mormons—child brides, statutory rape, the works. So now we have the morally repugnant association of incest with their homespun brand of Paganism…and we haven’t even gotten to the ritual murders yet!

What would their rituals be like if they weren’t high on entheogens all the time?

I found myself asking this question a good deal as the narrative progressed. Not only were the inhabitants of Hälsingland pushing psilocybins on the outsiders studying their Midsummer festival within minutes of meeting them, they seemed to enjoy getting high on their own supply regularly as well. There’s a growing body of clinical evidence indicating that regular use of hallucinogenic drugs can create psychotic states (I know this from my years of marketing neurology medications to doctors and hospitals) in the human brain, so it made me wonder if the socially aberrant, extremely violent behavior of the Hårga people was due, at least to some extent, to their round-the-clock ritualized consumption of hallucinogens.

Now I know what many of you are thinking: cultural anthropologists and other writers in the social sciences have credited the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the development of human religious ritual over many centuries, if not millennia, so the phenomenon of sacred tripping/revelation of spiritual epiphanies through ritually contextualized entheogenic drug use is confirmed by the religious histories of many of the world’s cultures, from ancient Greece to modern Peru. I’m sure pre-Christian Scandinavia was no exception.

That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder how the Hårga people’s ways of interacting with the Sacred would be different if the mediating influences of hallucinogens were removed from the equation. How “real” would their convictions be if they weren’t high all the time? Do they need to be high to do the things that they do, clobbering people in the faces with massive wooden hammers, setting them on fire in their garish, IKEA-looking temples and the like?

Swedish temples by IKEA

Coming soon to an IKEA near you: the triangle temple in prefabricated Swedish yellow planks!

Tellingly, all of the outsider/American characters wind up having extremely disturbing “bad trips” that result from their consumption, taken willingly or not, of the drugs offered to them: Dani (played by Florence Pugh) and Mark (Will Poulter, in the photo above) experience full-blown anxiety attacks during their initial mushroom trips, which tinge the sun-kissed Midsummer Swedish skies with more than a little hint of Nature as Menacing Force Wholly Out of Your Personal Control; and Christian, poor sod, is wholly divested of control over his personal actions when he drinks the drug-laced love potion brewed by the amorous (of course she’s a redhead) Maja (played by Isabelle Grill), who doesn’t seem to care that Christian is the erstwhile boyfriend (albeit an unsympathetic asshole of one) of the grief-stricken and isolated Dani.

So those are the main aspects of Midsommar that bother me as a Polytheistic Pagan, that make me inwardly groan when I talk to new people about my personal belief system and they apprehensively start to cite this movie as their pop culture-informed (mis)understanding of what “Paganism” means and then I’m put on the defensive, having to define myself and what I believe in contrast to the film’s depiction of a seemingly culturally contextualized but actually fully hollow “Paganism” with its litany of sinister connotations (no, I don’t believe in human sacrifice and I don’t commit ritual murder; no, I don’t condone incest; no, I’m not tripping on ‘shrooms 24/7 and having sex with my uncles and first cousins; but yes, I extensively work with the runes in my magical practices and they are sacred, living spirits imbued with holy meaning and power).

Now what about the movie’s other flaws, the “flatness” I alluded to earlier?

Why is this categorized as a horror film?

“This is a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film.”—Ari Aster’s commentary on the Midsommar trailer

There are no scary scenes at all.

There was the potential when Dani started having her bad mushroom trip minutes after entering Hälsingland that Ari Aster really could have made better use of by really delving into her fear in a way that could have translated into genuine scares for the audience. A glimpse of that potential occurred so briefly when she, in her panic, runs into the darkened outhouse (it’s as if she’s trying to escape the protracted evening sunshine, which really begins to unnerve Mark) and catches her reflection for a split second in the mirror above the sink: We’re treated to the disturbing glimpse of sinister faces reflected back, faces that are distorted and are clearly not hers. Are these depictions of land spirits that mock her in her plight? Or spirits of the human dead? I was definitely intrigued but nothing further came from that and I felt really disappointed.

All the wrong, predictable horror film tropes we thought Ari Aster would steer clear from because they were not used in Hereditary in the slightest find their way here.

To wit, (1) kill the people of color off first (this, to me, is by far the worst of the tropes; I was truly hoping that the character of Josh would defy genre convention and live to see the end, but no); (2) depict women’s sexuality/women’s sexual agency as grotesquely as possible to the male gaze; (3) have the concord among friends descend into chaotic in-fighting/fierce distrust of each other, which further separates them and makes them easy proverbial lambs led to slaughter; (4) transform the protagonist-victim by the film’s end into the antagonist-aggressor who relishes her death-dealing powers.

I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief—not when northern Sweden looks more like the Badlands of South Dakota.

I know, it was filmed in Hungary, but this chalky landscape? Really? It’s like looking at the set of the old TV show Lost in Space or something. There wasn’t enough blood spilled to add some contrast and color. I simply wanted everyone, save Josh, to die.


Midsommar looks like Badlands LOL

Jack Reynor (far left) winces at my scathing review of this film.


Forgettable cinematography and a non-existent memorable music score.

I was shocked to see in the film’s credits that Pawel Pogorzelski, the director of photography who brilliantly brought the world of Hereditary to textured life, also was the cinematographer for Midsommar. Save for the entry into Hälsingland, wherein the American travelers’ car was flipped for an extended upside-down camera angle, hinting at the disorientation to come for the characters, the cinematography was uninspiring. The close-ups of Dani having her sporadic emotional meltdowns became clichéd, started to feel horribly contrived. The only scenes—again, brief glimpses—that visually redeemed the movie somewhat were the quirky ones of Christian being sewn into the hollowed-out sacrificed bear and Simon the British dude (played by Archie Madekwe) artfully sacrificed via the Viking method of execution known as the blood-eagle. There was a touch of the photography of Anne Geddes in Simon’s human sacrifice, if you ask me, with the flowers sticking out of his eye sockets. Finally, some ritual sacrifice that comes off as poetic! HUZZAH!

Haxan Cloak furnished the original music score but it was absolutely forgettable. Again, we are a world away from Hereditary’s haunting music score by Colin Stetson, flush with eerie choral effects accompanied by shrieking, staccato cello and other stringed instruments. Boooo.

“The audience comes in with certain expectations…”    —Ari Aster

Yes, yes we do. Expectations built on the foundation of Ari Aster’s extraordinary first feature film’s masterful storytelling of a very unique depiction of the circumstances surrounding the breakdown of a particular nuclear family. (I’m talking about Hereditary here, if you couldn’t tell.) Midsommar depicts, by contrast, the breakdown of a particular romantic relationship. As with Hereditary, the trauma wrought by grief over unspeakable family losses (a mother’s loss of her 13-year-old daughter in Hereditary; a young woman’s loss of her sister and parents through murder-suicide in Midsommar) plunges the female protagonists into some very dark journeys of self-discovery. I gave a shit about Toni Collette’s (tour de force performance as) Annie in Hereditary; I don’t give a shit about Florence Pugh’s Dani in Midsommar. It’s too predictable, Dani’s transformation from victim to villain, gleefully relishing the fact that she nominated her cheating boyfriend Christian as the last of the nine human sacrifices needed for the Midsommar festival. Devoid of a family, crowned as May Queen, we know she will adopt the Hårga people as her family/be fully accepted by them into their culture and way of life (heck, she can even speak Swedish when she’s high on mushroom juice!) and hook up with Pelle (played by Vilhelm Blomgren), the guy who should have been her boyfriend all along. No, Ari Aster, I did not find Midsommar “emotionally surprising.” I found it inanely predictable. And I found your Deity-less Pagan society and mish-mash of runes wildly inaccurate, historically and spiritually, and egregiously insulting.

“I hope that this film leaves people confused as to how to feel.” —Ari Aster

I’m sorry, Ari Aster, but I know precisely how I feel: sorely disappointed that you obviously choked under the weight of expectations placed by so many people, myself included, for this film to be a worthy successor to Hereditary. It’s not. It’s bland. It’s insipid. And it’s certainly no Wicker Man, either—no quirky appealing traits to your Pagans, unlike the inhabitants of Robin Hardy’s Summerisle. No intrigue, no unfolding mystery. No desire to sing along with the Pagans at film’s end, cheering on their sacrificial bonfire with human offerings laid within.

This film was 2 hours and 20 minutes of my life that I’ll never be able to reclaim.

Enough said.